Each week, WW writer John Minervini brings you the latest in book reviews, author Q&A's and Portland literary gossip. Click here to join the Tome Raider mailing list.
“You guys ready to make some babies...with words?” - Derrick Brown, 2nd Round
What were you doing last night (Nov. 6) at 9pm? Man, whatever it was, it wasn't half as cool as the Superstar Slam Poetry Competition.
This event, which kicked off Portland's Wordstock Festival
(Nov. 6-9) featured six all-star performance poets—including national and world slam champions—in a word-off that, through sheer force of rhetoric, could have taken dried paint off a leather couch. Hosted by Portland rhymesters Good Sista Bad Sista (aka Turiya and Walida) at the Bagdad Theater, the slam boasted a grand prize of $1500 for the highest-scoring individual poet. Here's the lineup:
rides the bus. Karen Finneyfrock
got her fortune told by a drunken belly-dancer. Somebody punched Derrick Brown
in the face. If you ever see Tara Hardy
making eyes at someone, shove a sack of rocks up her ass. Buddy Wakefield's
mother doesn't deal in the abridged version. Jodie Knowles
just wants to know whether she's going to a funeral or a parade. Her outfit is ready.
From left to right: Slam poets Derrick Brown, Anis Mojgani, Karen Finneyfrock and Tara Hardy
Each poet was given three minutes and thirty seconds to give a solo performance without props or musical accompaniment. Then five audience judges would rate the poem and its delivery on a scale from 1-10. After the judges had all weighed in, the highest and lowest individual ratings were thrown out. Then the remaining three scores were added together to produce a composite score. Finally, for every ten seconds the poet went over time, a half-point was deducted.
There were two preliminary rounds, separated by an intermission. After round two, the three poets with the highest point totals went on to compete in a winner-take-all final round.
Yes, it was complicated. And MC's Good Sista Bad Sista repeatedly acknowledged that rating poetry is asinine.
“Applaud the poet, not the score,” they enjoined. But I'd be lying if I said the ratings weren't a little thrilling. The audience was really getting into it, too—they applauded or booed based on whether they felt a judge's score was on-target.
“I don't drink or fight or love. But these days, I find myself wanting to do all three.” - Anis Mojgani, 1st Round
Round one didn't yield any clear frontrunners, although it did give the audience a feel for each of the performer's styles. Jodie Knowles reminded me of Natalie Portman in Garden State
. Tara Hardy seemed like someone you would meet at a Phish concert.
Round two separated the wheat from the chaff. Generally speaking, the audience & judges reacted favorably to poets whose second performance had a substantively different tone from their first (Wakefield, Hardy, Finneyfrock). Chameleons advanced to round three, while one-hit wonders were confined to the prelims.
“Between 'my ass itches' and 'I need to get laid,' I'm here for you.” - Jodie Knowles, 1st Round
Before we get to the finals, it must be said that the program suffered from a few organizational flaws. First, MC's Good Sista Bad Sista were forced to compute the performance totals themselves—up on stage, in front of the mics. Second, the girls didn't have a calculator. Translation? Until an obliging audience member volunteered her calculator, Bad Sista was doing all the math with a pencil. These two may have been talented performance poets, but they were hardly deft arithmeticians. How did nobody think of this in advance?
“Seriously, you guys. There's decimals and stuff. This stuff is hard.” - Bad Sista, pencil in hand, explaining why it was taking so long to compute the total for the first performance.
Honestly, the last round was a bit of a disappointment—and not just because my two favorite poets (Brown & Mojgani) had been eliminated during round two (they had exceeded the prescribed time limit, yo). Whereas in preliminary rounds the poetry had been playful and frequently funny, now I guess the remaining contestants decided that they needed something somber—or even downright shocking—to tie up the win.
Of the three, Karen Finneyfrock gave the best performance. She slammed about the electrification of the rural South; or more broadly, how humanity has been hurt rather than helped by its forays into the worlds of electric & nuclear energy. Her poem was well-structured, well-performed and rhythmic, but she never stood a chance when it came time to vote.
“Do your atoms rearrange themselves when you're not looking?” - Karen Finneyfrock, 3rd Round
Buddy Wakefield spent the last round describing the contemplative death of a Baptist woman, Jean Heath. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. At least he had it memorized. That couldn't be said for Tara Hardy, who read an unrehearsed poem off a piece of paper. The poem—whose subject was the difficult road to world peace—included a confession that Hardy had been sexually abused by her father. Of course, she won first prize. How do you tell a live audience that you've been raped and not win first prize?
Slam poet Buddy Wakefield. Wakefield's final performance chronicled the death of a Baptist woman, Jean Heath.
In the end, though, everyone went home happy, not least because all the poets had secretly agreed in advance to split the prize money evenly among the six of them, no matter who won. That arrangement lent itself to a cooperative and fun—rather than ruthlessly competitive—slam environment, and in a few instances the poets actually performed in small groups. Before we go, here are a few in-house awards, cooked up by Tome Raider and his traveling companion:
JODIE KNOWLES. In the first round, Knowles rapped about addiction and the difficulty of supporting someone who's neither dying nor getting well. Describing this in-between space is intuitively brilliant, and Knowles knocked it out of the park.
Best Single Performance:
DERRICK BROWN. During round two, Brown went wildly over his time limit describing how he got beat up in the fifth grade for kissing a girl underwater.
KAREN FINNEYFROCK. In round one, riffing on rampant consumerism and greed in America, Finneyfrock rewrote the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty, delivering her lines in a hysterical deadpan. “Give me your merchandise, I should say. Give me your bananas & coffee beans.”
BUDDY WAKEFIELD. Wakefield is a talented poet, but he made the audience squirm on two separate occasions. First, they never seemed to warm up to the idea of a “black diva” back-up singer that he repeatedly mentioned in his round two slam. Second, before his performance in round three, he chided the judges for the low scores they had given him in round two. Eeeee...
Don't know which Wordstock events to attend? Click here to see Tome Raider's Must-See guide to Wordstock.
“Seven-point-four? Seriously? Do you guys know how many drugs I had to take to get that line?” - Buddy Wakefield, 3rd Round